David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Bat­tle of the Sexes (PG) Na­tional re­lease Fi­nal Por­trait (M) Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

There’s a scene in the hugely en­ter­tain­ing new film Bat­tle of the Sexes in which Jack Kramer (Bill Pull­man), a cel­e­brated star of Amer­i­can ten­nis and a force be­hind the In­ter­na­tional Ten­nis Fed­er­a­tion and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ten­nis Pro­fes­sion­als, is­sues a press re­lease pro­claim­ing “men are sim­ply more ex­cit­ing to watch (play ten­nis) than women”.

The year is 1972 and that smug as­ser­tion is about to un­dergo a ma­jor re­think. The prize­money of­fered to male ten­nis play­ers is eight times more than the re­wards avail­able for women, and Bil­lie Jean King, the 29-year-old fe­male ten­nis star, is sick of be­ing pa­tro­n­ised and un­der­paid.

King and other fe­male ten­nis play­ers form the Women’s Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion, whose mem­bers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s Mar­garet Court, are promptly banned by the ATP. What fol­lows next is the sub­ject of the movie.

King is por­trayed, quite su­perbly, by Emma Stone, who looks quite a bit like her and who has the fierce tenac­ity re­quired for the role. With the help of pub­li­cist Gla­dys Held­man (Sarah Silverman), a tobacco com­pany is signed on to spon­sor the women and the all-fe­male tour be­gins.

Mean­while Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, ter­rific), a ten­nis cham­pion in the 1940s and now well into his 50s, de­cides to prove that men are su­pe­rior to women. Riggs, whose life­style is fi­nanced by his wealthy, dis­dain­ful wife, Priscilla (Elis­a­beth Shue), is ad­dicted to gam­bling and to mak­ing stupid pro­nounce­ments to the ef­fect that women should stick to the kitchen and/or the bed­room where they be­long.

King re­fuses to ac­cept his chal­lenge, but Court (Jes­sica McNamee) is will­ing; she’s soundly de­feated by Riggs, paving the way for the cel­e­brated 1973 con­test be­tween Riggs and King — the out­come of which is well known.

While all this is go­ing on, King is go­ing through per­sonal up­heaval. Mar­ried to her coach and man­ager, Larry King (Austin Stow­ell), she meets and falls in love with Mar­i­lyn (An­drea Rise­bor­ough), a hair­dresser, who joins her on the tour. Their scenes to­gether are han­dled with un­usual del­i­cacy.

There’s a great deal go­ing on in the screen­play by Bri­tish writer Si­mon Beau­foy, who’s best known for The Full Monty and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire. Beau­foy orig­i­nally wrote the film for Danny Boyle, but the team of Va­lerie Faris and Jonathan Day­ton, who made the de­light­ful Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine (2006) and the un­der­rated Ruby Sparks (2012), have suc­cess­fully blended the el­e­ments of a true story that hap­pened 45 years ago with some con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary about sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual re­la­tion­ships. The jaw-drop­ping chau­vin­ism dis­played by men in quite pub­lic po­si­tions seems al­most un­be­liev­able today, just as prob­a­bly some of the anti-same-sex mar­riage com­men­taries will seem ar­chaic in a few years. In Fi­nal Por­trait, Ge­of­frey Rush plays Swiss artist Al­berto Gi­a­cometti — cor­rec­tion, Rush in­hab­its the role. Just as he was David Helf­gott, this new por­trait of an ec­cen­tric but gifted artist of­fers an in­cred­i­ble role for Rush and he grabs it with both hands. I’ve no idea if this was what Gi­a­cometti was re­ally like, but it doesn’t mat­ter; Rush’s Gi­a­cometti — shabby, sham­bling, chainsmok­ing, mut­ter­ing in Ital­ian, French and English, charm­ing and in­fu­ri­at­ing — is a thor­oughly rounded, thor­oughly com­plete, quite bril­liant por­trayal. The cast­ing is per­fect too: Jan Hladik’s etch­ing of Gi­a­cometti could al­most be an etch­ing of Rush.

The film it­self doesn’t quite match the per­for­mance, though it’s pretty in­ter­est­ing. It’s set in Paris in 1964, two years be­fore the death of the artist. He lives in a run­down apart­ment in an un­invit­ing back al­ley with An­nette (Sylvie Tes­tud), his long-suf­fer­ing wife; his brother, Diego (Tony Shal­houb), also an artist, lives up­stairs. Diego is as calm and mod­er­ate as Al­berto is hyper and mer­cu­rial (“My brother can only be happy when he’s des­per­ate and un­com­fort­able”), while An­nette yearns to live in a proper home, not this dingy rat-hole. Her frus­tra­tion is am­pli­fied by the fact Al­berto openly spends time with his mis­tress, Caro­line (Cle­mence Poesy), even leav­ing the res­tau­rant ta­ble where he’s din­ing with his wife to join his mis­tress at an­other ta­ble. Caro­line is a pros­ti­tute whose pimp charges the artist for the time he spends with her — he pays in cash, cash from the sale of his art­works, cash that he hides all over the stu­dio be­cause he doesn’t trust banks (“But you’re Swiss!” he’s re­minded. “Swiss Ital­ian,” he re­sponds, as if that makes all the dif­fer­ence.)

When the film be­gins, Al­berto has pro­posed to his friend, James Lord (Ar­mie Ham­mer), an Amer­i­can au­thor and art critic, that he sit for a por­trait, even though he tells him he has “the head of a brute. You look like a real thug”. Lord agrees en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, es­pe­cially when Al­berto as­sures him that the sit­ting won’t take long — “a few hours — an afternoon”. That, of course, is not what hap­pens. Lord, de­scribed by An­nette as “my hus­band’s next vic­tim”, finds him­self sit­ting, in a very pre­cise po­si­tion, day af­ter day af­ter day. He con­stantly has to resched­ule his flight to New York, yet be­cause he’s con­vinced that the end re­sult will be mag­nif­i­cent, he per­se­veres where many might have called it a day af­ter a cou­ple of sit­tings.

One of the prob­lems is that Gi­a­cometti is so eas­ily dis­tracted. If Caro­line calls in, she has all his at­ten­tion. An­nette, too, can di­vert him from his pur­pose. He likes to go for walks, but even more he likes to head to the lo­cal bar, where they know him well enough to de­liver his favourite food and wine to his ta­ble (a typ­i­cal meal con­sists of eggs, two glasses of red wine, drunk in long gulps, and two cups of cof­fee). And he smokes, end­lessly, con­stantly. He’s wreathed in cig­a­rette smoke as he peers at his sub­ject and at the can­vas. The men con­verse, but usu­ally the topic of con­ver­sa­tion is de­press­ing, turn­ing to thoughts of sui­cide (“Death must be the most fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m cu­ri­ous!”) He also cri­tiques fel­low artists (“Pi­casso could be so pompous!”)

Us­ing only blacks and shades of grey, Gi­a­cometti cre­ates what seems to Lord — and us — a mag­nif­i­cently orig­i­nal por­trait, only to ex­press his dis­sat­is­fac­tion, paint over it and start again. This goes on for days. “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you,” he tells his in­creas­ingly frus­trated sub­ject.

Fi­nal Por­trait is the first film ac­tor Stan­ley Tucci has di­rected in al­most 10 years, and in many ways it suc­ceeds. My only real reser­va­tion is the need­lessly wob­bly cam­er­a­work em­ployed by cine­matog­ra­pher Danny Co­hen, who oth­er­wise re-cre­ates Paris in the 60s with steely, de­sat­u­rated colours (even though the film was made in Bri­tain). And it would surely have been an as­set to have seen the ac­tual por­trait at the end of the film, some­thing we are de­nied.

These are rel­a­tively mi­nor quib­bles, how­ever. Tucci’s achieve­ment is to have worked so suc­cess­fully with one great artist, Rush, in the creative por­trayal of an­other great artist.


Emma Stone and Steve Carell pre­pare to fight it out on court in Bat­tle of the Sexes, above; Ge­of­frey Rush in­hab­its the char­ac­ter of Swiss artist Al­berto Gi­a­cometti in Fi­nal Por­trait, left

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